BOSTON (CN) — Massachusetts’ highest court is deciding how to change signature requirements for prospective political candidates amid social distancing and the Covid-19 state of emergency, following a Thursday afternoon teleconference hearing.
“We have some concerns about the elements of the potential remedy that has been outlined by the secretary,” said attorney Robert Jones, on behalf of three petitioners who hope to appear on Sept. 1 primary ballots, but have yet to obtain enough signatures to qualify.
“In the current public health crisis and in the face of the governor’s orders for people to stay at home, the typical in-person activities required to gather signatures that would allow petitioners to appear on the ballot are largely impossible,” Jones said.
Secretary of State William Galvin, who is listed as the lawsuit’s defendant, offered to halve the required number of signatures, push the May 5 deadline back one week and allow a limited number of electronic signatures. The three petitioners are asking for a two-thirds reduction in the required number and to fully allow electronic signatures.
Candidates must gather signatures on official forms that are supplied by the state. Those forms became available on Feb. 11, but by March 7, Governor Charlie Baker had declared a state of emergency and called on people to self-quarantine and respect social distancing.
“The candidates had four weeks instead of the 11 or 12 they thought they would have,” Jones said.
Associate Justice Scott Kafker seemed to be in favor of finding a way to use electronic signatures, though Roberts argued that a proper solution would require multiple components, due to the difference in efficacy of collecting signatures online versus in-person canvassing.
“It’s hard for me to imagine in the Twitter and Facebook world that a viable candidate, if an electronic signature system is workable, to get that percentage of the voters in his or her district to sign,” Kafker said.
The ruling from the state Supreme Court could also affect the procedure for ballot initiatives. If the Massachusetts Legislature declines to take up any of the proposed ballot questions by May 5, then those initiatives’ supporters would have six weeks to gather over 13,000 signatures.
“That seems like we have another crisis coming down the road,” Kafker said.
John Cluverius, who serves as associate director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said he hopes the high court takes drastic measures to reduce signature requirements this election cycle.
“Just like everything else, this is an unprecedented situation for the commonwealth. Really any attempt to reduce interaction between people is a good one and in the interest of public safety,” Cluverius said. “People are worried enough about going to Market Basket to get groceries, they don’t want to deal with someone shoving a pen or a clipboard in their face.”
Cluverius, who is also an assistant professor of political science, noted that other states like New York have eliminated the signature requirement to get on the ballot for this year due to the viral outbreak.
“I honestly think they should get rid of them altogether for this election. If state parties are OK with that, I think that’s the best solution,” Cluverius said. “At this point, if you really want to run for office right now, you should be on the ballot.”
Aside from eliminating signature requirements, Cluverius said that any change in the rules would have to be substantial to make a positive difference.
“There’s no reason why Massachusetts can’t move to a model that puts the health interest of voters and campaigns highest on the list,” he said. “As we move into election season, I think it’s important to remember that democracy is not supposed to be a suicide pact.”
Originally, the secretary of state argued that any changes to the ballot qualification process would have to come from the Legislature, but without much time left in the election cycle, a solution from the court might be more feasible.
“I think that they we are less in a position where we can take a cue or instruction from the Legislature,” Assistant Attorney General Anne Sterman said.
Sterman said that despite not waiting for a bill to pass, the secretary’s proposal was informed by what is currently being considered by the state Legislature, which has yet to pass the state Senate bill to reduce signature requirements as of Thursday afternoon. If passed, it would still need to pass the House.
“It has not passed, but I would submit that it does have some value on the analysis of a proper remedy,” she said.
Before candidates can appear on primary ballots, they must obtain a minimum number of signatures from registered voters in their respective districts. U.S. Senate candidates need 10,000, U.S. House candidates need 2,000. State senate candidates need 300, while state house representatives need 150.
Robert Goldstein is attempting to challenge incumbent Stephen Lynch, a moderate Democrat who has served in the U.S. Congress since 2001.
Kevin O’Connor hopes to make it onto the Republican ballot for U.S. Senate, so that he can then challenge Democratic Ed Markey, or Markey’s primary challenger Joe Kennedy III in November. Republican Shiva Ayyadurai is also running after he failed to secure the party’s nomination in 2018.
Melissa Bower Smith is running as a Democrat against fellow party-member James Murphy for the 4th Norfolk state representative seat, which has been held by Murphy since 2003.